Updated: January 12, 2010 17:13 IST

Determining the true character of Sita

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"Why do you speak like a common man to an ordinary woman?" Praakrutah praakrutaamiva. The gentle, direct question addressed by Sita to Rama on the battlefield reveals her true self.

She had immense reserves of inner strength. Perhaps her self-chosen fire-ordeal has led some critics to think of her as weak. A considerable section of feminists have assumed that the Indian woman suffers from the Sita-syndrome. According to Reba Som, even Nehru seems to have thought so.

Is this the truth about Vaidehi, wonders In Search of Sita. Sifting through the Ramayana corpus with determination, Malashri Lal and Namita Gokhale have put together a competently-structured anthology. Reading the volume makes us understand that Sita was no silent martyr, though she was never one for histrionics. Her ability to speak out whenever the need arose and her determination never to take the line of least resistance must not be overlooked in the flames of the fire she willingly entered in Lanka.

The wide net cast by the editors captures several creative and critical shades in limning Sita. Sonal Mansingh rightly says: “Sita’s own luminous strength determines her identity and self-respect. She has an aura about her, which does not admit contrary intrusions.” How true!

Pulavar Kulanthai who wrote Ravana Kaaviyam (1946) in Tamil to denigrate Rama as an Aryan terrorist, could not trifle with Sita’s sterling character. Film or caricature, Sita takes it in her stride, even if it is Annette Hanshaw sieved through Nina Paley. For the bhasha Ramayanas, she is the darling daughter of the house, and the Kali who destroys the thousand-headed Ravana.

Ideal woman

An array of scholars and creative artistes like D. Rama Raju, Mandakranta Bose, Amit Chaudhuri, and Nilimma Devi make the book a browser’s delight. The Jungian psychotherapist in Rashna Imhasly-Gandhy tries hard to make the epic characters stand stiff as so many goblets into which society pours its ideas: “The ideal of womanhood is projected onto Sita, who becomes the perfect role model as partner and mother. She, like her Western counterpart, the Virgin, is sanitised and made out to be an asexual person, belonging to a higher and purer self, but one who is constantly separated from her husband.”

As for the writers of fiction and poetry, we have enough here to show how passionate the Indians feel about the trials undergone by Sita. We do miss some significant entries like the epic, Sitayana by K.R. Srinivasa Iyengar. Going by the matter presented by the editors, there is violence in the imagery of Nishi Chawla (‘Sita’s Divinity’) and a near-perfect coalition of myth and reality in ‘Janaki’ by Vijay Lakshmi.

Ramnika Gupta’s novel Sita has a Dalit woman by that name as the heroine. When someone from the gathered crowd tries to make peace saying Sitaji had followed Rama to the forest, she gives everyone a verbal thrashing:

“You are teaching me the Ramayana! You call him Rama, this man Yaseen who has another wife? Ramji did not marry again. Get me right — I am no Sita to follow her man to the forest. I will instead send him there. I will see how you can hold a job and get married a second time, when your first wife is still there — wait and see!”

Ramnika’s insight is estimable, for now we know why Sita loved Rama so deeply. He was an eka patnivrata! However, Rama is generally at the receiving end, as in Chandra Ghosh Jain’s ‘Sita’s letter to her Daughter’. But the sparkle and significance of Mithila’s princess comes through in Sita’s letters to her mother (Kumudini’s story which appeared in The Hindu five years ago), the tale which put the gathered material in proper perspective for Namita Gokhale: “This imaginary daily life reminded me that, at some level, Sita was a human incarnation, tried and tested by extraordinary circumstances.” That is all we know and we need to know.

Reading the volume makes us understand that Sita was no silent martyr, though she was never one for histrionics.

IN SEARCH OF SITA — Revisiting Mythology: Edited by Malashri Lal and Namita Gokhale; Penguin Books India Pvt. Ltd., 11, Community Centre, Panchsheel Park, New Delhi-110017. Rs. 399.

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